Retro Review: Gangs of New York

Hidden within the colorful history of New York City, a dark period beckons. During that period men were savages and the streets were their war zone. It was a struggle for power through the blood of corruption.

Within that period, a displaced orphan, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), returns to the Five Points within New York City. The Five Points is a section of New York’s seediest neighborhood where five roads converge onto a square.

Many years ago, Vallon witnessed a battle for power between his father (Liam Neeson) and the leader of the American Natives, Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). Young Vallon has vengeance steaming within his veins and his object is to take down Bill the Butcher at any cost. The problem is that things on the Five Points are never that simple.

Acclaimed director Martin Scorsese unleashes a world that history books seem to have neglected. Scorsese in fine form unlocks this world with such scope and presence. There is a lot of detail and time consumption in every scene shown. Even with the brutal street battles, Scorsese has found a way to bring forth majesty and passion to these streets.

A friend of mine said that this film’s epic moments reminded him of Charles Dickens. I so agree on this assessment. In the work of Dickens, there was a lot treachery, backstabbing and struggles for power. If the world of Dickens were given a clubs, pikes and meat-cleavers then that would be the best description for “Gangs of New York”.

The showcase of this blood-stained epic is the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis who eclipses his Oscar winning performance in “My Left Foot” when he embodies the sick, twisted and insane mind of Bill the Butcher. Not for one moment do you think this guy is anything but the Butcher.

With other characters like Vallon and Cameron Diaz’s Jenny you can find yourself being transfixed on who they are behind the scenes instead of the roles they are playing.

I did find Leo engaging but I found it hard to separate Leo the actor from Vallon. Even after Vallon is broken and beaten to within an inch of his life. The makeup people let Leo heal to his “pretty-boy” self. This is even after Bill brands his face. I found that quite annoying. Muck up this actor then maybe we can believe more in him especially since his love for Jenny is based on their scarred struggle.

The least powerful performance of the piece is from Cameron Diaz. I found it very hard to accept her as a desperate woman. I partially bought her thief angle but thought that a better actress could have given Jenny a rawer quality. Her presence and performance in this movie reminded me a lot of how Heather Graham stuck out like a sore thumb in “From Hell”.

Diaz had a lot more to work with than Graham but Diaz never runs with it. It could have been a dynamite performance if she would have let go of her inhibitions and embraced the desperation within Jenny.

“Gangs of New York” is epic and grand moviemaking. There is a lot of risk in its execution and I think that could be its greatest triumph.

(4.5 out of 5)

So Says the Soothsayer.

Written: December 18, 2002

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